Italy and immigrants

13 Sep

The number-one story on the New York Times web site this morning was an interesting feature discussing Chinese immigrants in Italy, and the tensions that are arising from the situation. The article focuses on the town of Prato, world-renowned for its high-quality textile industry. In the last twenty years, Chinese have been immigrating to Prato, legally and illegally, by the tens of thousands and setting up workshops of their own. The Prato chamber of commerce reports that Chinese-owned textile businesses now outnumber those owned by Italians.

The situation in Prato is breeding resentment on both sides. Prato’s first conservative mayor since WWII accused the Chinese of bringing “noise, bad habits, prostitution,” and won his seat partly by feeding fears about a “Chinese invasion.” The immigrants accuse the authorities of racism and unfairly cracking down on their businesses while turning a blind eye to the Italian-run businesses that are also not following the lax laws of the land. The Chinese defended their work, saying they had moved into a stagnant economy and created jobs by shaking things up in Prato with the innovation of pronto modo, fast fashion.

Growing up in a San Diego suburb, I’m not unfamiliar with the tensions that can arise from immigration issues.

Bologna isn’t really facing this problem: almost 90 percent of the residents of Bologna are Italian. The largest group of immigrants mostly comes from Eastern Europe; every day you can see Roma women with their babies asking for change on the streets radiating out from the central piazza.

People from Bangladesh make up less than 1.5 percent of Bologna’s population, but they have a corner on the kebab and alimentari markets. Their snack shops and tiny markets stay open all day, every day, so if you have the munchies on the way home from Piazza Verdi or need a can of tomatoes to make dinner on Sunday, they make it possible. Convenient for me, but I’ve heard the Italians find it rather annoying. And on the street of produce stands, the fruit at the Bangladeshi stalls is $0.50/kg cheaper than that at the Italian stalls; Colin says the Italian stands can afford to do that because there are enough people who are more racist than they are budget-conscious.

Colin wanted to do a research project on the watering-down of cultures as English moves into small communities and replaces the indigenous languages, and I think that same idea applies with this. The Italians (and the French and the Germans) are very opposed to the watering-down of their culture. It’s illegal in Italy to label cheese Parmigiano unless it was made in Parma. The founder of Florence allegedly ordered the murder of a man who had gotten a hold of some of the city’s silk-making secrets.

This fast fashion coming out of Prato is Chinese-made with Chinese materials, but still labeled “Made in Italy.” Knowing the level of quality of the clothes I bought in Taiwan, I don’t blame the Italians for being concerned with what this is doing to their brand.

But I think the burden falls on Italy to tighten up its laws if people want things to change. And apply those laws to everyone, not just the immigrant communities. The governments are meeting next month, and this issue will undoubtedly be on the agenda.

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One Response to “Italy and immigrants”

  1. musingsandmarvels September 18, 2010 at 10:11 pm #

    I agree. I had a friend who studied in Cordoba, Spain for a semester. She lived with a host family, and the host mother complained everyday about the Chinese and how they’re taking all the jobs and not bothering to assimilate to Spanish culture.

    Even with tighter laws, I think it might take years (and a new generation) before people get used to each other and work things out.

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